Brother Ali’s [click to read] story is a unique one. Skeptics may wonder how an albino white kid from Minnesota could become one of independent Rap’s strongest voices. Yet, Ali stands as one of the genre’s most highly-praised artists, defying the odds to make it happen. After battling doubt, ridicule and hardship, he grew out of his teen years with the confidence of a talented emcee and used that same grit to escape from poverty, a painful divorce and strained family ties. All of this has been well documented throughout his previous projects and while his story is an intriguing one, it seems he’s ready to shift gears on his latest offering. Now, Ali is transferring his focus to Us, working with longtime collaborator Ant to share the stories of others in an attempt to build on his impressive discography. Marking the release of his third official full-length album, some have doubted that he could satisfy those high expectations. But, that only allows Ali to do what he’s always done best: defy the odds.
Amid soulful chants and handclaps, Chuck D opens the curtains, asking for “open hearts and open minds,” before handing the mic to Ali who blasts off with the thunderous horns of “The Preacher.” Though The Brother begins with the intensity he’s known for, he is especially effective when flexing his story telling prowess, a focal point on Us. This is evident on the piano laden “Tight Rope,” a daring and inspired look into the lives of a Somalian immigrant, a gay teenager and the son of a broken home. “In two worlds with your eyes closed, tip toeing on a tight rope,” he sings while battling stereotypes, judgment and pain over Ant’s lively keys. Unafraid to cross more boundaries, Ali tackles the shackles of racial tension and slavery on both the metaphor-driven “Breakin’ Dawn” and “The Travelers.” The latter is an analysis of slavery’s negative impact on history and a take on race relations. “Our ancestors bought us control/ We realize now that the cost was our soul / Got me feeling like an empty shell / Prison guard that inherited a cell.” He continues tugging on emotional heart strings as he shares the story of a rape victim on “Babygirl,” with intense detail and heart wrenching depth. Later, he laments the death of a friend who sold drugs (“Slippin Away”) and goes deeper on “Games” to discuss crack sales, materialism and self-love offering advice like, “As long as your blood moves tragedy can touch you / Struggle ain’t nothin’ new / Cards ain’t always gon’ land where you want them to / Fuck it though, thug it through.” True to the art form, Ali uses “Crown Jewel,” “Round Here,” “Bad Mufucker Pt. 2” and “Best@it” [click to listen] to show he can still rap with the best of them. While Freeway [click to read] and Joell Ortiz [click to read] are welcomed guests, Ali shows he’s at home on any lyrical avenue. Be it rhyming about joy, battling demons or social issues, few can provide the quality, versatility and depth shown on Us.
Where Ali has been compared to a scrapper in the ring, Ant has been a loyal trainer in his corner. Supplying the production for all of his previous releases, the Minnesota four-track king continues to impress. Balancing samples with live instrumentation, this album has a cleaner sound than any of Ali’s previous efforts from start to finish and Ant has a way to enhance each track he touches. The strong bass and horns of “Crown Jewel” go well with Ali’s smooth delivery and the haunting sounds of “House Keys” give Ali’s short story a more cinematic feel. This is especially true for the blues and soul on “Breakin’ Dawn,” where Ant paints a vivid backdrop for Ali’s narrative. Creating the perfect soundscape for one of The Brother’s most upbeat tracks to date, Ant also blesses “Fresh Air” [click to listen] with enough Funk and synths to make any Mack proud and shows why he’s been touted as one of the best beat smiths under the radar. With the Gospel-inspired tracks “Brothers and Sisters” and “Us,” Ant finds a way to tie the whole album together with cohesion and flair, showing that the duo is as strong as they’ve ever been, if not better.
Few rappers dive into the lyrical content that Brother Ali swims in but he manages to do so with passion, humility and skill. Though it may not be a classic through and through, this album gives nearly no reason to complain. Catapulted by Ant’s steady, strong and versatile production, Ali brings forth one of this year’s gems, one that is too good to remain beneath the surface. Blending classic Hip Hop formulas with innovative techniques and unabashed lyricism, Us is another reminder of what this genre can produce. By defying the odds and crafting yet another quality release, Brother Ali gives Us one more reason to stay up with the underground.